Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Another thought on teachers

I've thought a little more about yesterday's post on teaching, and there's another point I don't want to miss. I may have made it before, but I don't think I'll go back and plow through a year's worth of posts to see.

We all want every student to have great teachers at every grade level, in every class. We rarely define "great teacher," many contending that we know one when we see it. But that's reductive and unhelpful. Some want to define "great" as anyone who raises test scores by a certain amount, but that method is fraught with evaluation problems (as I discussed yesterday).

I know I have written before about the problem of making any profession that requires 3,000,000 members have only great ones; it's hard to see how anybody could find that many great anythings, let alone a job so multifaceted and complex as teaching.

But here's another thing: I've gone to school for many years, and I would say I've only had two great teachers. By that, I mean teachers who were inspirational and changed the way I saw my place in the world. I've had a whole lot of good teachers, people who competently stood in front of a classroom and conveyed information, and way too many bad teachers.

I spent a year as a substitute teacher in a nationally-respected high school, and got to see first-hand how disappointing a lot of the teachers were in terms of commitment and subject matter knowledge. One in particular struck me as remarkably poor; she spent all her free periods smoking in the teachers' lounge (back in the days when you could do that), never stayed late, and seemed to have no interest in mathematics at all.

However, a few years ago, I found a web site with teacher evaluations. Out of curiosity, I looked up this teacher, and found quite a bit of praise from her students. Some of them found her clear in teaching and inspirational in tone. Were they wrong? Was I wrong?

No to both questions. Teachers don't just teach in some value-neutral setting, they interact with hundreds of students a year. Every one of those interactions is conditioned by a student's prior experiences, their own maturity, the style of the teaching, and a whole lot of other factors. A teacher with none of the attributes I looked for might well fit another student perfectly. For me, office hours were important, because I often would go to kick around an idea, and I expected a great teacher to be there most of the time (if the schedule called for it). But if you were a student who confined their interaction to class time, other considerations became paramount.

I guarantee it goes the other way as well. Both of my "great teachers" were demanding, made us work hard, and I know that a lot of my fellow students would not have rated them as highly as I did. And neither of these gentlemen ever would have "taught to the test," so, if you were to measure them by either students reached (at that time; I would bet that a lot of the negative students have since come to realize the value those teachers provided) or by incremental test scores, they might well come up short and be forced to leave. (I'm also not at all sure how you measure the value added of a music teacher, which presents a real problem for all of the non-core subject teachers out there.) And, were that true, I might have had no great teachers in my life at all.

(Which brings up another big objection to the test score value-added method of evaluation: It tends to reward teachers who are good at bringing the poor student up to adequate over the teacher who is good at reaching the already-bright. If you have a talent for helping the 80 or 90 get to 100, you will come up far short of the teacher who gets the 10 up to 50. But we need both kinds of teachers, particularly if we want to use our "new schools" to jump-start our new advanced economy - all the 50s in the world aren't going to do much about that, we need the 100 students to be at the top of their game to create the technological future - but this is not the day for me to lament the hideous inadequacy of our gifted education.)

1 comment:

TV Shows Online said...

Ya you are absolutely right every student wants a great teacher to make the career bright but they can not able to get it because teachers are not giving the knowledge the students deserves.

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